I love our Gospel story about Mary and Martha.
(One quick clarification: this Mary is not the same as Mary Magdalene or the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. Mary was a common name for women in the first century!)
I love picturing Mary sitting near Jesus and listening intently to everything he was saying. And I have a lot of sympathy for Martha, who has welcomed Jesus and his disciples into her home and now finds herself trying to feed them.
I had a Martha moment of my own last week. On Sunday afternoon, our son Benjamin announced that he and his girlfriend planned to stay with us that evening. He added, they would appreciate if we could offer them supper.
We were thrilled. But their arrival complicated our food life. Carrie had bought food for two. Benjamin has an impressive appetite. His girlfriend didn’t need as much food. But we wanted to offer her something decent, not the random assortment we might have given our son.
It worked out fine. But in case I needed it, Benjamin’s surprise visit gave me a little perspective on what Martha was up against. Jesus shows up with at least twelve disciples. Jesus was about thirty-three. The twelve apostles were probably all younger by a decade or more, which is to say not so different in age than my sons. The disciples were also an active crew who spent their days walking outside, and didn’t get a lot of home-cooked meals. I think how I might have felt if Benjamin had announced he was coming for supper with twelve of his buddies. Especially if we didn’t have access to stocked grocery stores and indoor plumbing!
Poor Martha had a LOT on her plate the day Jesus and friends arrived! Given all that, Martha’s complaint about being left to take care of everything by herself seems fair.
But Jesus doesn’t seem to agree. Instead, Jesus praises Mary for making the good choice of sitting at his feet while Martha has wrongly let herself get worried and distracted by many things.
We’re not told how Martha responded. But think for a minute about how you might respond in that situation. We are not supposed to fuss at Jesus. But I would feel a lot like fussing!
We can take this a little farther. In the Medieval period, Christian writers thought of Mary and Martha as representing different lifestyles. Mary represented the contemplative life, the life devoted mostly to prayer. Martha represented the active life, life in the world.
Monks in the Medieval period typically celebrated Mary’s devotion to prayer. But the people I talk to more often identify with Martha, as I do. We all need to spend time in prayer each day, of course. But I don’t have time to sit in silent adoration for six hours a day. And I’m not sure I want to. I like taking care of business, and taking care of business seems to be God’s calling to me.
So, what do we Martha-sympathizers do with our passage? What can we learn from Jesus’ “reprimand” of Martha, if that’s what it is?
In contemplative prayer last week, we prayed through this passage several times. Unusually, we all ended up with about the same message. It became increasingly clear that Martha’s problem was NOT that she was taking care of business. Taking care of business is a good thing. Martha’s problem was that she let herself get distracted by her business.
I get that. Most days I tackle my tasks in a more or less orderly sequence without too much trouble. But some days I get overwhelmed. I think of myself as a juggler. I am keeping the balls (my tasks) in the air. Then I get one more ball, and suddenly it’s too many for me to handle, and down they all come.
I don’t totally flake out too often. But many of you have seen me getting close. Sometimes on Fridays between events, or immediately after Church on Sundays, when a bunch of people are around that I need or want to talk to and I also have something I want to do, I start flying up and down the hallways and talking too fast. That’s when I’m getting worried and distracted by many things, most of which don’t actually matter very much but can become overwhelming to me in the moment.
That’s how I picture Martha in our Gospel reading. Martha really does have a lot to do, and she is getting. For me, it comes out in moving fast. For her, it comes out in irritation at her sister. For both of us, it’s not particularly productive or helpful.
If that’s right, Jesus probably wasn’t reprimanding Martha after all. Jesus was inviting Martha to calm down.
As I picture Jesus talking to Martha, as I imagine Jesus talking to us, I hear him saying, “Slow down. Take a breath. It’s OK that Mary’s sitting here. And you can, too.”
It’s fun to keep going with the story. This is just my imagination. But here is how I imagine it.
Martha accepts Jesus’ invitation. She takes a deep breath, finds a little inner peace, sees the situation in a new way, and realizes she doesn’t actually have to prepare food for all these people.
I imagine Martha announcing, “You know, you are right, Jesus. I’m going to fix myself a quick sandwich and then join you out here. The rest of you can fend for yourselves. I am happy to help. But if you want something from my kitchen, now is the time to get it.”
I imagine all those hungry young men looking at each other in alarm. After a moment, somebody says, “I think I’ll go with Martha to see what’s available.” One by one, the other disciples all follow.
Finally, it’s just Jesus and Mary in the living room. Jesus shrugs, laughs, and he and Mary join the group in the kitchen. Because there is nothing wrong with taking care of business.
While they are all carrying on and laughing, all getting what they need, somebody starts to hum. Someone else picks up the song, and they sing as they work. After the song, everyone carries their food back into the living room. Jesus says a blessing, and they pass around whatever they had fixed. It was a mini feeding of the multitude and an anticipation of the Last Supper.
The blessing, as I imagine this scene, is that Mary and Martha were both satisfied. The necessary work got done, and everyone stayed close to Jesus the whole time.
Of course, real life is usually more complicated.
There are many things to worry and distract us. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, and often hard to maintain perspective, to be open to the Spirit, to stay rooted in fellowship with Christ.
But it is possible.
And we need to claim that possibility now more than ever. Most of us routinely find ourselves feeling like Martha did at the start of our passage. Our culture is full of people overwhelmed by distractions and reasons for worry. The result is a lot of dysfunction, which we can see in our own lives and all around us.
And into the chaos comes Christ, with an invitation to sit at his feet, or to join us in the kitchen while we cook. That invitation is a great gift to busy people.
I thank Christ for giving us the possibility of not getting overwhelmed by our work. And I thank Christ that we always have the option of staying close to Him. In His name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan